“Don’t even think about it” is Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger’s message to theme park development team regarding virtual reality, according to a report from the LA Times. Instead, Iger sees augmented reality headsets to be the more likely fit for future attractions.

The world’s most-visited theme park company, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Worldwide, dominates the charts, entertaining over 130 million people each year, more than double the attendance of the next largest company, Merlin Entertainments Group.

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DisneyQuest’s ‘Ride the Comix’ | Photo courtesy Dave Pape (CC BY 2.0)

Disney has a long history of its ‘imagineers’ developing uses for innovative technology in their parks. The company was a pioneer in out-of-home VR deployments in the ’80s and ’90s era of VR. When Disney makes a call on the future of technology in its parks, it carries significant weight in the industry. While popular parks like Six Flags have successfully re-purposed roller coasters to work with VR headsets, the result hasn’t always been well received, particularly among theme park purists.

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Photo courtesy Sugargliding (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Iger is clearly wary of this, and believes augmented reality, rather than virtual reality, is the key technology to be found at future Disney attractions. By blending the real and virtual world cohesively, AR is considered to have broader applications in the future, a sentiment shared by several major tech companies, such as Google and Microsoft’s long-term bets with their Tango and HoloLens projects, and Apple repeatedly voicing their preference for AR.

According to the LA Times report, Iger said he’s been spending his Tuesday afternoons at a Disney engineering lab wearing an immersive head mounted device that lets him duel a stormtrooper while wielding a lightsaber, though he remained vague on the details of the hardware and the experience.

That said, AR technology has arguably greater technical hurdles to overcome before it can rival VR in the immersion stakes, such as small field of view, occlusion challenges and critical optical mismatches. Today, VR delivers higher-impact, convincing experiences at a lower cost, and Disney certainly isn’t turning its back on the technology, continuing to invest in VR research, only recently publishing a paper relating to dynamic object interactions and proprioception. Plus, VR in an outdated form still exists in Orlando, as DisneyQuest remains open, despite its announced closure in 2015.

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Once planned as a worldwide chain of 20 VR centres, some of DisneyQuest’s pioneering technology is almost 20 years old, and long overdue a rethink. The LA Times article states that the Disney CEO has weekly duels with a stormtrooper in a Disney engineering lab sporting a head-worn device that enables him to hold a lightsaber. Star Wars is one of Disney’s biggest franchises, with two theme parks at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Park due to open in 2019. Perhaps too soon for AR technology to be ready to play a big role at these new attractions, but the future sounds exciting.

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  • OgreTactics

    Why they would chose AR over VR in a theme-park is ludicrous. What they going to input, see-through screen with overlaid mickeys? I don’t understand the idea behind.

    • Sky Castle

      I have always believed VR is best for gaming while AR is more practical for real world use. One of the things that I thought was overwhelming as a kid at Disneyland was reading the map of the park. It was so big and I had a hard time navigating my way around using the map. With AR I can see directions being laid out on the ground in front of you pointing to the destination you select to go on your map.

      How about riding a roller coaster with a pair of AR glasses on and seeing giant robots, monsters, or just friendly Disney characters as you fly past them. Or seeing a sky battle take place around the roller coaster.

      Haunted houses no longer need to rely on real people dressed in unconvincing costumes. You can see real ghost coming at you instead.

      Disney is a social experience, which AR compliments far better than VR, which is an isolated experience. So AR does indeed make more since for them.

      • OgreTactics

        Oh yes, you’re actually right, the idea of a park-wide AR-glasses experience is amazing. Although usable AR glasses won’t be around for at least 10 years before it even reach the current VR visual state. Although as I always say, there is no difference between AR and VR in concept as their spectrum of the same virtual continuum, like there’s no difference between headset and glasses since headset is the only usable technology for both screen, external-camera-tracking based VR and AR, which will eventually evolved far enough into becoming see-through lightfield based VR and AR.

    • There is a very, very specific reason why they don’t want to use VR.

      If you think about it carefully, Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride not the movie), could be PERFECTLY recreated in VR. You could have a small warehouse in Fresno, with a boat that people get into, and put headsets on, and the experience would be identical to the real thing.

      This would be disastrous for Disney, because another company can come along, and basically build the exact same thing, anywhere. Sure, it wouldn’t actually be called “Pirates of the Caribbean”, but they can make basically the exact same thing, and have it available in a small warehouse in your local town. If this were to happen, why would you spend all the time and money going to Disneyland ? It would be a total waste of your time and money to go all the way to Disneyworld, to experience something available in a local warehouse on the outskirts of town. This is why his statement is “Don’t even think about VR”. VR will be the death of normal themeparks ( unfortunately for the existing theme park companies ). Of course, companies like The Void will be there to take guests to places and experiences that they have never been to, and you won’t have to drive for hours or fly in a plane to try it all out.

      • OgreTactics

        As well, well spotted. Although they’ll eventually have to create their own virtual attraction platform in the future if they want to survive it. When I say the future I mean 20 years because it’s not even sure that VR will pick-up for this generation.

        • Yeah, I’m also talking farther into the future, when I talk about recreating that ride perfectly. You’d need 220 degree FOV and 6K to each eye (or so). Probably 5 years away.

  • David Glenn

    I would have to agree with Igor in the fact that there is more potential in AR over VR. We only need to get the hardware up to snuff. For now, we can cut our teeth with VR and learn the best narrative there and maybe dabble in Hololens for AR, but the real test is going to be when we can show a true immersive AR experience – Hololens is just not there yet!

  • tobycwood

    Disney has had AR in their rides now for years. The Toy Story ride in CA Adventure is the best example I can think of. VR? VR will put Disneyland out of business! Ever play “Unforgiven”? the first 5 minutes of it is PURE Disney with the old guy by the fire telling you the story about the gun fighter. With a Vive or Rift you have your own theme park without the huge ticket pricing, crappy over priced food, long lines and 3 min rides. Disney is in ALOT of trouble!! They’re best bet is to not make the same mistake Kodak made with Dig photography. Rather then sitting back and cash cowing hard to manage theme parks they should scramble to take over the VR content world with hard to match quality experiences. They should set the bar so high that small developers (such as Anton Hand and H3VR) cannot compete. Hopefully they won’t see that and the inflection point will come and go.BuhBye Mickey!